Spero’s social conscience shapes business plans

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“Social responsibility in entrepreneurship.  That’s what we’re all about,” said Rebecca Brandt-Fontaine, General Contractor of Spero Properties, LLC, a home remodeling company working to revitalize housing in the Twin Cities. 

Spero has completed 15 home remodeling projects since it was established in 2008 in efforts to breathe new life into what seemed like neighborhoods gasping for air.  The company has completed the majority of its renovations in Midway, with a focus on a six-block area north of University Avenue and on both sides of Lexington Parkway in Frogtown.  Spero has remodeled two homes in Minneapolis in addition to 13 in Midway and Frogtown.

Spero’s owners, Brandt-Fontaine and Paul Steinhauser, are Twin Cities natives, “so this is kind of in our backyard,” Brandt-Fontaine said. Scott Blanck, one of the original founders of the company, is no longer an owner.

Brandt-Fontaine, Steinhauser, and Blanck established the for-profit home remodeling company in response to “a downward spiral in deteriorated housing and poorly managed housing,” Brandt-Fontaine said.  “We thought, let’s work contrary to this trend.”

According to Spero’s blog, the company believes that “the act of remodeling homes assumes a responsibility to the overall quality and livability of the neighborhood.”

“We’re more looking for a neighborhood to turn around,” Blanck said.  “Not only does it help the neighborhood, people start investing in their own homes, and property values go up.  It has a real positive effect.”

“We concentrate our efforts in a neighborhood so others have a standard to compete with.  We put pressure on other entrepreneurs to do right in the community,” Brandt-Fontaine said.  “We do scatter-site development and try to come in and make a difference…and to lift the bar for rebuilders to do the right thing.”

Spero revives Category Two properties, or buildings that are vacant and condemned as uninhabitable by the city of St. Paul.

“We buy the worst of the worst,” Brandt-Fontaine said.

Vacant houses in St. Paul are assigned to one of three classifications; Category One, Two, or Three.  Category One buildings are in the most promising condition, while Category Three buildings are the most uninhabitable, usually fated for demolition.

According to the city’s web site, the average cost of making a vacant property meet city code requirements is $30,000.

“We’ve never spent less than $60,000,” Brandt-Fontaine said of Spero’s spending per project.

One of those projects is Spero’s remodeled home at 1043 Charles Avenue.  Two other previously Category Two homes on Charles Avenue that were not renovated by Spero, lots 1458 and 490, were remodeled for $36,740 and $51,380, respectively.

The property at 1043 Charles Avenue is priced at $169,000, relatively higher than the typical pricing of renovated properties in Frogtown.   The Greater Frogtown Community Development Corporation renovated two homes in Frogtown that were recently appraised for $110,000 and $135,000.

“Location plays a key role in pricing,” Becky Errigo, Housing Development Manager for GFCDC, said.  “The farther west you go, prices seem to increase.”

The property at 1043 Charles Avenue lies on the western edge of Frogtown, while the two properties renovated by GFCDC are located more central to “the heart of Frogtown,” Errigo said.

“We want to build houses that are durable, but affordable for people to live in.  We try to make energy costs as low as we can possibly make in an old house.  That’s not required by code-we want to do it,” Brandt-Fontaine said.

Spero reuses materials as part of its commitment to social responsibility and sustainable living.

“I’d rather pay somebody a day’s worth labor to pull out old two by fours than to buy new,” Brandt-Fontaine said.  “We reuse that material.  If we’re going to spend dollars I’d rather spend on wages than materials.  We’re not loading up our dumpsters and buying new.”

Spero also values providing reliable jobs as part of its responsibility to the community.

“We’re really proud of the fact that we’ve been able to support a dozen families,” Brandt-Fontaine said of Spero’s job creation.

“They’ve done a fabulous job,” said Todd Block, who grew up in Frogtown and now lives blocks away from Spero remodels now on the market.

“A lot of the kids that grew up in this neighborhood bought homes in this neighborhood, and I’m an example,” said Block.  “This is a rock solid, tight neighborhood.”

Many people in Frogtown are life-long community residents.

Dirk Beukes, who holds open houses for Spero remodels, observed a tight-knit atmosphere in the Frogtown neighborhood, as well.

“I’ve had more than one person who said they grew up in this area,” Beukes said of visitors to open houses for the properties.  “There’s a family- and neighborhood-oriented environment here.  People love their neighborhood, people know their neighborhood, it’s just good.  I’m not from the neighborhood but I work in the neighborhood and I feel very welcome here.  I always have the neighbors come by because they have an interest in the neighborhood.  No one walks in and [doesn’t] make positive remarks.”

“We’ve gotten really different responses from people,” Brandt-Fontaine said when asked about the public’s reaction to Spero’s work.  “There are people who are really excited about what we’re doing.  We’ve had support from inspectors who like what we’re doing.”

Block considered the pricing of Spero’s property at 1043 Charles Avenue to be “pretty decent,” saying that overall, “they’ve done a real knock-out job.”

“The houses are all the same quality.  This is living proof of them living out their mission,” Beukes said of Spero’s work.

 

10/26/2010 CORRECTION, per Rebecca Brandt-Fontaine: One minor correction: Scott was an original founder of the company but he’s not an owner.  Also, we wrote the business plan and legally formed the LLC in December 2008 but started the business in February 2009 with the purchase of our first house.